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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Concepts of the Self 2nd edition by Anthony Elliott (Key Concepts:  Polity Press) The chapters that follow are designed to introduce students to concepts and theories of the self within the social sciences. The book aims to examine critically the ideas, concepts and theories of the self that are used in social analysis while also discussing key areas in which such approaches have produced elucidation of the experience of self-identity, selfhood and personal identity.

Chapter 1 looks at how the self has entered sociology. The chapter introduces three powerful sociological approaches to understanding how the self is constituted and constructed in the social world. How do people draw on symbols and sym­bolic material to fashion a sense of self? How do they live a narrative of self-identity that is actively constructed and reconstructed in the course of a life trajectory? In addressing these questions, Elliott pays close attention to George Herbert Mead's theories on the emergence of the self, and he also considers the ways in which his ideas have been developed in the sociological tradition of symbolic interactionism. The extremely subtle distinctions we often make in developing shared understandings about self-identity, as elucidated in the sociological writings of Erving Goffman, are also examined in this chapter. Finally, the chapter addresses the wider field of social theory and considers how self-identity links to social influences that are increasingly global in their implications and consequences. Here the writings of the British sociologist Anthony Giddens are discussed and critically evaluated.

Chapter 2 concentrates on psychoanalytic concepts of the self, with Freud's theory of the unconscious a major theme. The chapter is centrally concerned with the inner world of the self — the internal conflicts and unacceptable desires excluded from the conscious mind through processes of dis­placement, denial and repression. At the very least, Freud shows us that there is always a considerable gap between our ideal and real selves, the space between the private self and social identity. Strangeness, foreignness, otherness, ambiva­lence, incompleteness and insufficiency: at the core of Freud's theory of the unconscious are both forbidding and forbidden desires; the unconscious escapes explanation in terms of rationality or logic, and radically revises our commonsense understandings of the self as knowable, predictable and con­trolled; the repressed unconscious represents, in Freud's view, the most awesome stumbling block on the self's march to self-understanding and self-knowledge. Such riddles of the psyche as deciphered by Freud have proved attractive to various cultural analysts and social theorists interested in tracking the fate of the individual self in contemporary culture. From the writings of German critical theorist Herbert Marcuse to the Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Zizek, the Freudian conception of self has been at the centre of radical social criticism, and my discussion in this chapter traces both the conceptual gains and the blind alleys of psychoanalytic scholarship.

The cultural regulations governing the manner in which individuals construct their identities against an array of social differences has long been a preoccupation of authors influ­enced by structural forms of analysis. Language is assumed to be at the core of the relation between self and society in structuralist-inspired social theory, specifically the organizing principles of personal identity on the one hand and social differences on the other. Chapter 3 examines the contribution of the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault to the analysis of the self, power and language or discourse. Foucault's attempts to identify the systems of power through which individuals imprison themselves at the level of the self and individual subjectivity are discussed. His original argu­ment that the relationship of the individual to society and history can be traced to a whole technology of the self is critically appraised, as is his emphasis on modern forms of psychotherapy for the coercive management of the self. The chapter concludes by considering the work of other scholars influenced by Foucault, including the so-called school of gov­ernmentalities, for theorizing the relation between self and society.

Chapter 4 focuses on the nature of gender and its relation to the self. Feminism holds that the social world is pervaded by gender, that men and women are socialized into distinct patterns of relating to each other, and that masculine and feminine senses of self are tied to asymmetrical relations of gender power. How is gender power reproduced at the level of the self? How do men and women acquire a distinct sense of masculine or feminine gender identity? The writings of two feminists strongly influenced by psychoanalysis, Nancy Chodorow and Julia Kristeva, are critically examined against this backdrop. Elliott looks in particular at the very different concepts of the self articulated by Chodorow and Kristeva, and compare their blending of feminism and psychoanalysis. Gender is also at the heart of contemporary anxiety about sexual choice, erotic orientation, and the bridging of sexuality and the performance or enactment of gender. The work of the radical sexual feminist, Judith Butler, on strategies for the subversion of gender identity is discussed in this context, and the chapter concludes with a discussion of recent gay and lesbian scholarship on the self as well a critical evaluation of queer theory.

Interpretations of the search for self-identity tend to divide around the issue of the extension of global social processes to everyday life and the impact of new communication tech­nologies and mass-consumer cultures upon the personalized contexts in which experience is constituted. Some see the self in the contemporary epoch as increasingly frail, fractured and fragmented. Just as traditional forms of social integration have broken down, so also does the self. In an age of global capitalism and media saturation, the self dissolves. Others have reached a similar conclusion, but see the end result differently: not so much a dissolution as a rebirth — the emergence of new, postmodern forms of experience and identity. The debate about postmodernity is taken up in chapter 5. There Elliott addresses the issue of why postmodernism is at once so emotionally exhilarating and disturbing for current experiences of selfhood. In an era where global changes in employment, leisure, knowledge, media production and intimacy are increasingly rapid and disruptive, new challenges and new burdens arise for personal identity and the self.

A final remark about the scope of this book. Elliott has tried to develop in the pages that follow a concise introduction to some of the major concepts and theories of the self in con­temporary social theory and social science. The book is not intended as an exhaustive discussion of the topic; in analysing the major theories of self in social theory today — from psy­choanalysis and queer theory to Foucauldian and postmod­ern approaches — the author has tried to keep the discussion lively and concise, and this means some sacrifice in respect of detail and complexity. Nonetheless, my hope is that the reader finds this critical introduction to the self substantial and engaging. If the reader is encouraged to delve deeper in current debates over the self as a consequence of this book, then its purpose will have been served.


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